Orders of the Day — Lavender Hill, Enfield (Development Site)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th February 1966.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ifor Davies.]

10.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Iain Macleod Mr Iain Macleod , Enfield West

We discuss in this Adjournment debate what is perhaps the most famous or most notorious housing site in the country. It was an issue in a small way at the General Election; indeed, I have expressed my opinion that it won the General Election for the Socialist Party. It crops up over and over again in our debates. It came into a number of the speeches on the Second Reading of the Land Commission Bill a few days ago.

In view of that, it seems incredible—and I use the word carefully—that a final decision has been taken in the matter without full attention being paid to local residents and local societies, and that the decision to go ahead is one that is not to be supported by a public inquiry. It is on that point, as I have informed the Minister, that I wish to concentrate.

I am very grateful to him for coming to answer the debate himself. It is true that he is personally concerned, but it is also a courtesy to myself and to the House which I very much appreciate.

The story of the site is pretty well known, of how the Hundred Acres Charity eventually decided to sell the allotment site, how it was bought for £7,500 by the Lavender Garden Properties, and how as a result of a decision of a Conservative Minister of Housing at the time—a decision with which I said then and I say still I agree—to give planning permission for housing, the value turned out to be not less than £240,000.

I make two points which are often omitted from a full account of the case. First of all, the underbidder to the £7,500 was the local council, by £200. It is a sad thought, particularly for the ratepayers of Enfield, that had the local council been prepared to pay a little more, perhaps the golden acres would have accrued to the benefit of those who live in that particular area.

Secondly, it is right to say that in October, 1964, the company offered to return to the council the £240,000 which it had been awarded by the High Court, apart from the Minister's decision, on condition that it was allowed to proceed with its original plans for small cheap flats and maisonettes; and that offer, perhaps properly, was turned down by the council.

I would make it quite clear that the Lavender Hill case convinced me and, at the General Election, when I was in a sort of semi-detached position, the Minister will recall that I advocated the imposition of a levy which would operate on the trigger of planning permission. I advocated that also somewhat unofficially after the election, in particular at the Leyton by-election, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) made it official Conservative policy early in March. So there is little doubt that the site has exercised a good deal of influence upon our thinking. I confess that it has upon mine.

I do not want to go into the detail of the 16, to 14, to 12 storeys with tower blocks which were the various propositions put forward on behalf of the old Enfield Borough Council and the new Enfield Council of the Greater London area. This site is on one of the highest points in Enfield. It is on the edge of lovely green belt country. It is a few yards from The Ridgeway, where I lived for about 14 years, and it is not in the least surprising, therefore, that when the Minister's decision was made known that 12 storey blocks with 100 habitable rooms per acre were to go forward—and this was in November, 1965—local indignation really boiled over.

There are some peculiar aspects of this decision which I would wish for a moment to probe. First, how much consultation was there? The Ministry, not the Minister—the Minister enters into this deplorable story a little later; for the moment it is the Ministry—said in a letter dated 3rd November to Mr. Freeman, who has played a prominent part in objecting to this particular proposal: I can assure you that the views of local residents were taken into account by the Minister"— by the Minister— in reaching his decision. Well, were they? It is true that there was a meeting at the end of July, but it was limited to those whose houses adjoin this particular site, and as these tower flats, even at 12 storeys, are going to be visible as far as Epping Forest, that seems to me a ludicrously narrow definition of those who were affected by this building.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Grossman):

I want to follow the story. When was this letter to which the right hon. Gentleman referred written? Was it written in November?

Photo of Mr Iain Macleod Mr Iain Macleod , Enfield West

Yes, on 3rd November.

Photo of Mr Richard Crossman Mr Richard Crossman , Coventry East

After the application of the Enfield Borough Council in October, and the advertisement in the Press?

Photo of Mr Iain Macleod Mr Iain Macleod , Enfield West

That is right. It was a letter in reply to a letter of protest from Mr. Freeman. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman has the letter, but I can show him a copy of it if necessary.

Mr. Slater, in referring to this discussion at the end of July, said: The residents were solidly of the opinion that the proposed development was bad planning and would spoil the green belt", and another constituent of mine, who is Chairman of the Borough Federation of Ratepayers and Civic Association, said that the whole thing was a complete waste of time. The local Press were excluded from this meeting, and so was I. I asked whether I could attend, and I was told "No". I was offered a private interview, but this seemed unsuitable for a Member of Parliament in this case. That is the only way in which it can possibly be argued that the opinion of some of those concerned has been taken into consideration by the Minister.

Who is really against this proposal? The answer is, all the ratepayers' associations, at least until they have had a public inquiry, the Enfield Preservation Society, and both the Tory and Liberal Parties. There is an important point here, and I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. John Mackie) will agree with me, although I do not expect any sympathy from the Minister in putting it forward.

As far as local elections are concerned, Enfield is rather a strange place. East is East, and West is West, and it is almost unheard of for a Tory to win a seat in the East—I acknowledge that—but I am happy to say that it is quite unheard of for a Socialist to win a seat in the West. The Liberals have won one or two, but that is all, and so all those who represent, or who have represented, those who reside in this area hold the view which I am putting forward tonight, and I think that this is a matter which should be taken into account.

Photo of Mr Julian Snow Mr Julian Snow , Lichfield and Tamworth

Will the right hon. Gentleman elaborate on what he was excluded from? We are rather interested in this.

Photo of Mr Iain Macleod Mr Iain Macleod , Enfield West

I was excluded from a meeting which was called by the Chairman of the Planning Committee of Enfield, and which was confined to those who had houses immediately adjoining the site. This is the site which has caused all this controversy. The public meeting was one which I felt a Member of Parliament should have been able to attend.

It is quite clear that this matter is full of politics. The Planning Committee Chairman to whom we have just been referred, who sponsored this inadequate meeting and was anxious to push this proposal into Enfield, West, is also the prospective Labour candidate for my constituency, so that the was attacked on the local council is not surprising. The communication between Enfield and the Greater London Council and the Ministry are full of confusion and contradiction. The gentleman in question—Councillor Graham—says that his conscience is clear. I do not attack this statement; I do not attack him. If I did I would do it in Enfield, where he could reply. But this is an excellent reason not to fear but to welcome the public inquiry for which I look tonight.

I now come to the Minister himself. As far as I can trace, the first letter which deals with this matter—a personal letter from him—is one of 21st December, but on 1st December, after a meeting at Tottenham, he was buttonholed by one of my constituents. This is reported in a local newspaper under the heading, "Where is Lavender Hill? Asks Mr. Crossman" —a question that he will not be able to ask after tonight. This constituent, having failed to raise the question at the meeting, buttonholed the Minister as he left the building. According to the report he said: 'I asked him why he had granted planning approval for the tower blocks at Lavender Hill without holding a public inquiry. 'Mr. Ward told the Gazette, 'and I emphasised the tremendous opposition to the scheme by individuals and organisations.'Mr. Ward says that the Minister replied: Where is Lavender Hill? What is this proposal about and why hasn't anyone written to me about it? ' I told him that dozens of letters had been sent to him opposing the scheme but he said he had not seen them and again asked what it was all about, said Mr. Ward. I have no doubt that the Minister will accept that conversation.

I know that the Minister will take this point very seriously: the effect of this decision has been deplorable in relation to the standing of his Ministry in this area. This is particularly important, because there are so many planning proposals in connection with the Lea Valley in which the Minister is closely concerned. I want to quote again from the Enfteld Gazette of a more recent date. It concerns the development of nursery land. It says: Mr. L. T. King, who is particularly concerned about Cairo Nursery, has written to the town clerk: 'After the fiasco of the Lavender Hill site I wonder if the Minister ever bothers to deal personally with objections or observations or even takes any notice of them. However, because I have strong views I will put my observations on record even though I believe the Minister's decision has already been made. I now come to my last point, which I told the Minister I wished to raise. The question is whether the Minister himself took the decision, or whether an official did. It is an unusual question, but it is very relevant to this case. I have been head of a Department for longer than anyone, except one, or at the most, two hon. Members in this House, and I know that it is a legend that a Minister can read or even see all the cases that come into his Department and on which decisions in his name go out. But Ministerial responsibility is not a legend, as Sir Thomas Dugdale—as he then was—reminded us in one case. The Minister knows this.

There is an early warning system in operation in all Ministries, and the more explosive an issue is the higher the level at which the decision ought to be taken. I simply cannot believe—and I mean this genuinely as a compliment to the Minister—that he took this decision. He has a reputation—and I say this without sarcasm—for being a very able Minister. I am certain that he would have recognised how much politics there was in this and that he would have awarded a court of inquiry. So I come to the conclusion that this decision was taken by an official. The Minister's inclination, no doubt—and it always is a Minister's inclination, quite rightly—is to defend that official's decision. I hope that he will not do so on this occasion. I hope that he will not say that there has been enough consultation, because I think that even in this short debate I have been able to show that that simply is not true. Between councils and committees perhaps there has, but that is not the point, and local people, as many as wish, should be able to have their full say at an open public inquiry.

The history of this case is in many ways deplorable, but it is accepted now that there should be building on this land to a considerable density. It is accepted that it should be council building. But only if there is a public inquiry can what has happened be redeemed. So I ask the Minister to agree that, even now, the voice of the local people should be heard, as they have the right to ask that it should be heard, through the medium of a public inquiry. I hope that he will concede that tonight.

10.51 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Grossman):

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod) for giving me warning and enabling us to discuss this subsidiary aspect of what he says is a notorious case. I will not waste time in dealing with the whole history of the case, except simply to take up a couple of points in his otherwise reasonably fair summary.

He asked why the council did not bid the extra £250. Perhaps he has not had the time to resume the history of the case, but this was a case of tender, and there was no question of competitive auction. I am told that the council was outbid by someone who was probably tipped off about what the council had done, and they have never forgiven themselves for allowing this thing to happen to them. It was not a question of their not being willing to pay: they were outwitted in these dubious events by somebody who had been given inside information of their intention and who outbid them. Therefore, to condemn the council over this is a little unfair.

I will not go through the whole history. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is a sorry history in terms of his own Government's legislation and the decisions of his right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) who is sitting beside him. When he was charged by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in a previous adjournment debate, the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East had to say that the reason that he had to give the decision which he had was that this was an area which could be used for residential purposes: In this situation, the Minister "— this is under Tory law— has to address his mind to whether the land is such that the Minister cannot imagine its being used for a purpose of higher value than that to which it is proposed to put it. "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, Vol. 688. c. 468–9.] It is worth remembering that the Bill which effectively destroyed our planning legislation was a Bill which the then Minister described as one which instructed him to see if it was possible to conceive of any kind of purpose which would make the land cost more. So it is not surprising that, as a result of this law and his decision against his inspector, the price of the land rocketed from £7,500 to £240,000.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to tell me the result of the performance of his right hon. Friend, whose mind is now fundamentally changed and who has now seen the advantages of betterment value and the rest, which the Land Commission—against which he voted on Second Reading, incidentally—will be there to carry out. It is true that the Enfield Council, not unreasonably, as the right hon. Gentleman said, decided that, if the land were to be built over, it should be for council house building rather than private enterprise, so they purchased for the £240,000.

They had sought to obtain planning permission from the Middlesex County Council. Then came the dispute about the density. The county council wanted 60 rooms per acre. The local council then put up a new plan for tower blocks with 116 to 120 rooms per acre. I intervened at this point and told them that that was too much, and, in collaboration with the G.L.C., advised them to take this estimate down a little, and brought them down to 100 per acre. It is lucky that I did, because otherwise the compensation now being paid would be even higher. Another £100,000 might be charged, according to the right hon. Gentleman's definition of imaging something and allowing the highest figure to be quoted. The Ministry at least intervened with the effect of saving money in this case and with the effect of seeing that the sum was reduced. In fact, of course, we did not do this with any regard for money, because that was not our job; our job was simply to consider the virtues of planning and to see how best the area could be used. We decided that it could best be used at 100 rooms per acre rather than at 116 per acre.

Since then we have been told in newspaper articles that the owners are raising their claim. The Guardian says that it is being raised to £400,000 per acre, which is £160,000 more than the £240,000, which in itself was much more than the £7,500. The Daily Mail tells me that it is up to £450,000. My own guess is that it would be below that figure but still a handsome increase—and simply in terms of density.

I will deal with the question of a public inquiry in full, but there is one point which I should first like to put to the right hon. Gentleman. I would not have followed this point normally, but I have collected all the Press cuttings and I have a report of a speech in which he has been telling his constituents what he thinks the real issues are. He said—drawing the moral of Lavender HillThe fundamental differences between the two parties is that Labour wants a nation of council house tenants and the Conservatives a nation of owner-occupiers. That was the conclusion which he reached. He thought that what the Government were fighting for was that the council should develop the land whereas he was valiantly fighting for the owner-occupiers. He did not say that tonight. He said tonight that he saw the council's point, but I have read what he told his no doubt cheering audience when he was whipping up indignation against the Minister and the council. He said, "I stand for the owner-occupiers". In fact, the houses would be somewhat expensive at this price per acre. One could build only luxury flats at such a price.

Tonight he does not make this claim. He admits that there may be a case for the council building on the site. He does not challenge a density of 100 rooms to the acre. In fact, he asks only one question: why was not a public inquiry held before the decision was taken?

Photo of Mr Iain Macleod Mr Iain Macleod , Enfield West

I did not say that I did not challenge the density of 100 rooms to the acre. I said that I wanted that decided after a public inquiry. That is a very different point.

Photo of Mr Richard Crossman Mr Richard Crossman , Coventry East

The right hon. Gentleman has narrowed it to one issue. He admits that it is an infamous case—so infamous as a result of his right hon. Friend's activities that it converted him to the view that there was a case for betterment value. I am delighted to hear that. Sinners are always to be welcomed. If he has been convinced by a case in his own constituency, well and good. He has been convinced by the outrageous nature of that decision and the whole dreary, seamy, history of it, which he asks us to repeat. But he now says that he wants one thing more—a public inquiry.

I should have thought that there were few sites in the whole of Britain more notorious, more infamous and better publicised than Lavender Hill. He commented that I once said that I had never heard of it. It is true that I made that remark. One evening I was far away in another part of London, in Tottenham, and when I came out of the meeting I was asked, "Will you deal with Lavender Hill?" I was very puzzled because I thought that I was in the wrong part of London. Judging by the question I thought that I must be near Lavender Hill! I then realised that outside the meeting in Tottenham someone had approached me who had come from Enfield. In a somewhat bewildered state I said, "Where on earth is Lavender Hill?" I was trying to point out that I was in Tottenham, not in Enfield.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right when he says that a Minister, known to be somewhat political, would be expected to have heard of this question, especially in view of his own conversion as a result of it. But he need not think that I did not know of it or did not authorise the decision. It is true that in the first place the Parliamentary Secretary acted and that in the second place I acted, but I take full responsibility, and there was no question of an official doing it. I took a considered decision in this case that we did not want another public inquiry.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman why. I have spent 15 months in the Ministry, and one thing I have learned is the danger in this country of Government by public inquiry. I have learned that if we have nothing but public inquiry after public inquiry—consider the Local Government Commission—we make democracy come into contempt by endless public inquiry.

Let me tell him a little about what would have been required of a public inquiry in this case. There could not have been a public inquiry about the use of this land because the Middlesex County Council, as the planning authority, had already ruled on that. The issue was not whether the land should be used by the council for residential purposes. The only area on which we could have had a public inquiry was the precise density for the land. I looked at this matter. We had had a lot of inquiries, and protests had been made. This had happened during two periods; in July and in October. In October the decision of the council had been advertised in the local Press. Everybody had had the right to object. The objections had been filed, collected and organised and endless meetings had been held. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that I did not know that somebody had objected, great Scott, what was the local Press for? What were the advertisements for? And if he says, "On every possible occasion we should have yet another formal inquiry"—yet another opportunity for the barristers to get their briefs, which, no doubt, he would like them to have, then that is not what I stand for as Minister.

I have said that before and I repeat it now. Where a matter has been fully ventilated, where time and again it has been advertised, discussed and debated, where the objections have been registered time and again—in such circumstances a decision to hold another public inquiry, with all that is involved in the processing in my Ministry and so on, which takes many months these days, is a decision for delay. In this case, there has been a very long time of delay. As usual, years have been spent and I admit freely that we now have about 18,000 planning appeals in my Ministry. Their number has increased by 50 per cent. in the last 18 months, though I have not increased my staff by 50 per cent. to deal with them.

There is now several months' delay before such a matter is processed in the Ministry and comes to me. Every time that happens, there is delay while those concerned select their barristers for the great public inquiry—by the time they have chosen their forensic protagonists. At each stage there is delay, with perhaps someone saying, "I must wait for so and so, and that may take six months". It may take a year for one of these brilliant forensic displays to take place.

What on earth could come out of another inquiry, except the knowledge that someone in Enfield did not agree that tower blocks should be built there or that someone did not agree that the council should develop that type of project? The only point at issue was for the Minister to make his decision. Knowing the position and knowing that the matter had been discussed in July and October—and that the right hon. Gentleman himself had publicised it; I have the cuttings from the local Press here—I came to my decision. Week after week the matter had been discussed in the local Press. I came to what the right hon. Gentleman no doubt regards as a misguided decision—a decision that, for once, in Enfield they wanted a decision and not another inquiry.

So I made my decision, knowing fully that there was opposition but regarding the provision of council housing as of a higher priority than another year of delay, debate and expensive inquiry. Having told the right hon. Gentleman this, I hope that he will understand that it was a decision taken not by officials of my Ministry but by me—having looked at it and with no doubt whatever in my mind that there was nothing more, no facts which could be elicited, and knowing in my mind that the area of inquiry was unusually narrow, thanks to the Middlesex County Council's planning decisions. Since the issue was that narrow and since the matter had been debated so fully, the important thing was to get ahead with building houses and, for once, get a decision put into effect without years of delay.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.